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In the land of identities

In the land of identities

The title of the full-page article in the major Israeli newspaper was, “My Name is Hannah Greene and I’m a Tibetan Nun.” Interesting, those are two labels I don’t usually apply to myself. “Hannah” is my Jewish name, not one many people know me by, and I’m not Tibetan. At least I was able to answer when the journalists began the interview with, “What is your Jewish name?” The second question had me stumped. “Are you Jewish?” they asked. “What does being Jewish mean?” I thought. I remember discussing it in Sunday School and somehow managed to pass when the rabbi asked that on a test. Am I Jewish because my ancestors were? Because I have dark curly hair (or at least used to before it got shaved 21 years ago when I ordained as a Buddhist nun), brown eyes, a “noticeable nose” (as my brother politely puts it)? Am I Jewish because I was confirmed and Rabbi Nateev no longer had to face my persistent questions? Because I was BBG president in high school? Because I knew the blessing of the wine (oops, I mean grape juice): “Baruch atta I don’t know elohaynu melach haalom … ”

But now I was stumped. I hadn’t thought about whether or not I was Jewish. I just am. Am what? The interviewer tried another tact, “You’re American. What does being American mean to you?” I couldn’t answer that satisfactorily either. I’m American because I have an American passport. They looked at me with questioning eyes. Am I American because I grew up with Mickey Mouse, Leave It to Beaver, and I Love Lucy? Because I protested the Vietnam War? (Some would say that made me un-American.) Because I was born the grandchild of immigrants who fled the pogroms, on a certain plot of land called “Chicago”?

Venerable looking at birds in a cage.

In Buddhism, we are not trying to find out who we are but who we aren’t.

How could I not know my identity? They were puzzled. As my fifteen days in Israel unfolded, the issue of identity became a recurring theme. I realized how much my views had changed. I had been studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings and thus had spent years trying to deconstruct my identity, to see it as something merely labeled, not as something solid, not something I truly was. So many of our problems—personal, national, and international—come from clinging to solid identities. Thus in Buddhism, we are not trying to find out who we are but who we aren’t. We work to free ourselves from all our erroneous and concrete conceptions about who we are.

The Israeli woman at whose home I was staying understood what the interviewers were getting at, “If there were another Holocaust and you were arrested for being Jewish, would you protest saying you’re not Jewish, you’re Buddhist?” I was equally baffled. “There is so much suffering in the world right now,” I responded, “and I’d rather focus on doing something about that than on thinking up and solving future problems that I’m not even sure will occur.” But for her this was a real question, a pressing one. And another theme of my visit was highlighted, the Holocaust.

“Your mother is Jewish. You could go to the immigration office and within an hour be an Israeli,” the interviewers and my host pointed out. “Would you want to do that?” “What does being an Israeli mean?” I wondered.

Everywhere I went people wanted to know my identity, they cared dearly about the labels I attached to myself, thinking that if they knew all the labels, they’d know me. This is a land of identities. We went to Ulpan Akiva, a unique language school in Natanya where Israelis can learn Arabic and Palestinians can learn Hebrew. There I met some Palestinians, who said, “We’re Muslims. We hope you can come to our new country, Palestine, some day.” More identities. When they heard I follow Tibetan Buddhism they said, “The Tibetans’ situation is similar to ours. We sympathize with them.” This startled me because until then I’d been involved in the Jewish-Tibetan dialogue, seeing the commonalities of two peoples in exile trying to maintain their unique religions and cultures. But, the Palestinians were right, their situation is like that of the Tibetans, for both live in occupied lands.

I participated in a Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in a Reform Synagogue in Jerusalem. The first part was interesting for one rabbi and I began to discuss meditation. But then the subject changed and the moderator asked, “Can one be Jewish and Buddhist at the same time? Or must one be either a Jew or a Buddhist?” The Orthodox rabbi on my left said, “There are various Buddhist schools and yours may not be one of them, but in general, Buddhists are idolaters.” My eyes opened wide. Being an idolater was not an identity I associated myself with. The Reform rabbi on my left who was from America spoke next, “I agree, Buddhist worship idols.” I was stunned. I knew that calling someone an idol worshipper was about the worst insult a Jew could give someone, something tantamount to a Christian saying to a Jew in public “You killed Christ.” But these people were nonplussed. The Orthodox rabbi furthest on my right added his view, “The various religions are like the colors of the rainbow. They all have their function. Many Jews are at the leading points of new religious movements, and it must be God’s wish that there are many faiths.” That was better. He turned to me smiling and sincerely wishing me well, “But remember, you’re still Jewish.”

By the time the moderator asked me to respond, I was so shocked that I was speechless. “To me, Jewish and Buddhist are merely labels. It is not important what we call ourselves. It is important how we live, how we treat others.” A few people applauded. This was all I could say. I left the synagogue feeling stunned and judged.

Before I got too into my karmic view of the situation, I thought I’d better get some others’ views on what happened. I asked my Israeli Buddhist friends what they’d thought of the dialogue. “Oh, it was great,” they responded, “We were afraid that the rabbis would be really judgmental and argumentative, but they were more open than we expected. It’s remarkable that the two Orthodox rabbis came to the Reform Synagogue. Many won’t, you know.” The moderator later told me that once he’d planned a panel including an Orthodox rabbi and a Palestinian leader. The rabbi refused to come, not because he’d have to talk to a Palestinian, but because it was in a Reform Synagogue.

Some people from the UK who I visited in Clil disagreed with the rabbis. They thought you could be a Jew and a Buddhist, and they put them together in an interesting combination. “We have a Jewish soul,” one told me, “and we use Buddhist mindfulness meditation to bring out the best of it.” Perplexed because the Buddha refuted the idea of a permanent soul, let alone one that was inherently Jewish, I asked what he meant. “We are part of the Jewish people. Our ancestors lived and thought in a particular way, and this culture and this way of looking at life are part of who we are.” I wondered: Does their perspective mean that if you’re born with “Jewish genes” in a Jewish family that you automatically have a certain identity? That you cannot escape some fixed place in history as the descendant of everything that happened to your ancestors before you even existed?

As a child, I was aware of things in the Jewish culture that I loved and respected, such as the emphasis on morality and on treating all beings with equal respect. But I was also acutely aware of how the Jewish identity was shaped by persecution—”we are a unique group and look at how many times throughout history others have seen us as singular and persecuted us even until death because of it.” Somehow, from early on, I rejected having an identity based on others’ hate and injustice. I refused to be suspicious of the people I encounter in the present simply because of the experiences my ancestors had in the past. Of course we are conditioned by the past, but that only establishes predispositions. It is not fixed or permanent. Even as a child I wanted to have a positive view of humanity and not be shackled by keeping history’s ghosts alive.

The Jews’ most recent ghost that haunts them is the Holocaust. During so many conversations, this topic came up. It seemed to permeate almost everything in Israel. As a child, I’d read a lot about the Holocaust, and it had affected me deeply. In fact, it taught me many important values, such as the importance of compassion, of morality, of being fair, of not discriminating against an entire group of people, of sticking up for the persecuted and the downtrodden, of living honestly and with a clear conscience. Learning about the Holocaust had shaped many of the positive attitudes that eventually led me to Buddhism.

But I could never—either as a child or now as an adult—think that Jews had the corner on suffering. In the Galilee, I led a the week-long retreat which centered on karma and compassion. In one session, we spontaneously had a touching, heartfelt discussion about the Holocaust. One woman shared her experience attending a gathering of children of Holocaust survivors and children of Nazis. When she listened to the children of SS officers talk, she came to understand the deep guilt, suffering and confusion they carry. How can you reconcile the memory of your loving father who cuddled you with the knowledge that he sanctioned the murder of millions of human beings? We talked about the parallels between the genocide of the Jews and the more recent one of the Tibetans by the Chinese Communists. As Buddhists, how did the Tibetans view what happened to them? Why do we meet many Tibetans who experienced atrocities and who do not seem to be emotionally scarred by the experience? We also discussed, “Does forgiving mean forgetting? Shouldn’t the world remember so that we can prevent genocide in the future?”

Yes, we need to remember, but remembering does not necessitate keeping pain, hurt, resentment, and anger alive in our hearts. We can remember with compassion, and that is more powerful. By forgiving, we let go of our anger, and by doing that, we cease our own suffering.

That night as we did a meditation on Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, out of my mouth—or rather, out of my heart—came the words:

When you visualize Chenrezig, bring him into the concentration camps. Imagine him in the trains, in the prisons, in the gas chambers. Visualize Chenrezig in Auschwitz, in Dachau, in the other camps. And as we recite the compassion mantra, imagine the brilliant light of compassion radiating from Chenrezig and permeating every atom of these places and of the people who were in them. This light of loving-kindness and compassion purifies the suffering, the hate, and the misconceptions of all the beings—Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, Nazis, ordinary Germans who refused to see in order to save their own skin—and heals all that pain.

We chanted the mantra together for over half an hour, and the room was charged. Very few times have I meditated with a group that was so concentrated.

The next day a young man asked me, “Most of the people who operated or lived in the concentration camps died many years ago. How could our meditation purify all of them?” Pause.

We are purifying the effect that their lives have on us. By doing this, we let go of our pain, our anger and paranoia, so that we can bring compassion to the world in the present and the future. We are preventing ourselves from living in deluded reaction to the past. We are stopping ourselves from creating a victim mentality that draws others’ prejudice to us, and we are ceasing the wish for revenge that makes us mistreat others. And although we cannot understand it intellectually, in a subtle way we do influence all the prisoners and Nazis in whatever form they are currently born in. We have to heal.

Heal? How do young people exposed to war heal? “The whole country is the army,” one friend told me. “It’s not possible to live here without being part of the army. Everyone—men and women alike—has to do compulsory military service after high school.” What effect does that have on each individual young person? Each sensitive young adult, trying to find his or her way in this confusing world, I wondered.

I talked with another friend who had been a commando in Lebanon and who now worked for the Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People. He grew up on a kibbutz and became a commando. “Why?” I asked. “Because it was prestigious and society expects us to do the best we can. I was young and just did what was expected … but I never killed anyone.” He said that last sentence twice. I asked about his experinece in the army, how he dealt with the violence he witnessed, with his own violence within, with his feelings. “You get numb. You push your feelings down and don’t think about them. Even now,” he said with a pained voice, a smile on his face, smoking one cigarette after another. Yes, he had grown numb. My heart ached. Then, “But if I didn’t do the work, who would? Others in my country. I couldn’t leave this work for others,” he said to me, an American who would have been drafted at the time of the Vietnam War. Only I was a woman. In any case, even if I were a man, I would have left the country rather than participate in violence. From very young I eschewed violence. But I also had some luxury that he didn’t have. The Vietnam War wasn’t near my home; it didn’t endanger the existence of my country. What would I have done had I been born in Israel? How do any of us heal from war?

One day I went to the Wailing Wall to pray. For a while I recited the mantra of Chenrezig and visualized purifying light healing the centuries of suffering in the Middle East. From a Buddhist viewpoint, the cause of all suffering lies in our minds and in the disturbing attitudes and emotions that motivate us to act in destructive ways, even though we all long to be happy. From my heart, I made strong prayers that all beings, and especially people in this part of the world, be able to generate the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment—the determination to be free from the cycle of constantly recurring problems, the altruistic intention to benefit all living beings, and the wisdom that realizes reality. At this point I put my head to the Wailing Wall in concentration, and then suddenly felt “plop!” as something damp hit my cap. A bird had pooped. What was this about? Recounting the episode to my friends later, they informed me that it is said that if a bird poops on one’s head at the Wailing Wall, it indicates one’s prayers will be actualized!

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.

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